BY HEIDI SWEDBERG | FROM THE SUMMER 2019 ISSUE OF UKULELE
When I was a kid, we took the most amazing summer vacations: we traveled to China to watch a duckling named Ping navigate the Yangtze river, we visited Spain to see Ferdinand in the bullfights, we toured India Just So we could see camels get their “humphs” and cats who walked alone. We even went Where the Wild Things Are. That is, we went to the public library, and we checked out books. My library card is the most valuable thing in my wallet. It takes me anywhere I wish to travel and gives me access to whatever I crave without spending a penny.
Card catalogues may be a thing of the past, but the books are all still there, along with computers, audio books, and digital media resources which give access to everything from streaming entertainment to online language courses. Increasingly, libraries are expanding their collections to fit the needs of their patrons. There are services for the homeless, yoga classes, and financial planning workshops. Public libraries are spearheading the “library of things” movement, lending diverse items like sewing machines, wi-fi hotspots, electricity meters, fishing poles, puppets, and, naturally, ukuleles.
Every day, it seems, a conversation begins with these words, “ukulele” and “library.” There is a Facebook group devoted to just that topic, and when polled, members’ responses were overwhelming and enthusiastic. It is now more difficult to locate a state that does not have a public library with a ukulele program than it is to find one that does. Some check out instruments just like books, some keep a classroom set of loaners to offer during free classes, and others share their most precious resource—real estate—giving clubs a place to meet and hosting jams organized by dedicated community members.
A public library program is a unique experience reflective of the community it serves. Welcoming people from every ethnic and religious background, persuasion, and economic strata—from homeless to philanthropist—an all-ages ukulele event can bring young children with their parents, singles, couples, and elderly people together to sing and strum. Noble and meaningful in theory, it is daunting in practice. And therein lies the challenge: creating a program that supports the needs of the community. What materials to offer? How to arrange the room? How often, how long, how big? What are the expectations and what are realistic goals?
Marc Horton of the Los Angeles Public Library says, “It’s easy to forget that I have other duties beyond being the library’s resident Ukebrarian. The positive response has been overwhelming. I recently made a presentation to our library board about the program, and of course, one of the board members is a huge uke enthusiast, and couldn’t have been more excited that the library was featuring ukulele, and wanted to discuss how to sustain and expand the program.” What started as a pilot grant program at one branch has spread to a larger grant that currently includes 17 of the city’s 73 libraries. Each participating branch offers circulating instruments and single or multi-session classes. Some branches host “Strum-Alongs,” where seasoned players can show beginners some basic skills and share songs, or “Ukulele Club,” an informal youth drop-in program where players can share songs, or curious beginners can get a quick intro and “Ukulele Storytimes,” a chance for caregivers and preschoolers to learn the basics and make the early-literacy skill of singing even more fun.
Marc has engaged five instructors and armed each with 15 instruments. The teachers work from their own materials in their own style. “I just got back from the first of three classes at Chatsworth and there were at least 40 people there, ranging from ages four to 84!” says Horton. He adds, “Celia Lawley’s using a totally different approach—the G-C-E-G open tuning for C—with single-finger barre chords for C and G. After an hour, they played a dozen songs. So many ways to do all of this!” Library cardholders can check out an instrument with a case, chord book, and tuner for three weeks at a time. Additional learning materials, including recreational and instructional music CDs, DVDs, books, and e-books can be checked out to support learning and exploring. “I have gotten questions from people as far afield as New Jersey, Virginia, Pennsylvania, and elsewhere about setting up ukes at their library.”
The Santa Monica Public Library in California has offered a variety of ukulele programs over the past four years. Most recently, Reference Services Librarian Barbara Chang Fleeman, has been fine-tuning a series of bi-weekly classes. Class size is not limited, but the number of instruments available for in-class use is (the library does not circulate instruments at this time). Before class begins, 25 loaner ukes are tuned up and laid out on a table, and participants select an instrument on a first-arrival basis, or bring their own. Rows of chairs are arranged in pairs, with a third chair turned to face them, serving in place of a music stand. A single-speaker PA ensures that the back of the room can hear without straining the facilitator’s voice. Sessions run 45 minutes for children, immediately followed by a 90-minute session for adults and teens, with the first half-hour focusing on teaching basic skills and the remainder dedicated to playing songs.
Participants use a songbook of public-domain music curated by the instructor and put together using half-inch binders and plastic sheet-protectors. Presented in large print, simplified arrangements of familiar songs are augmented with beginner-friendly chord boxes, making them easy to read, and are organized by level of difficulty: one- and two-chord songs first, followed by songs with three chords and up. Barbara says the feedback has been fantastic. “After class, one of our ukulele participants told me, ‘This has changed my life.’ And that brought tears to my eyes, because that is what libraries are all about today. We offer people the chance to try something new—at no cost—all the time. Whether it’s checking out a new author, listening to a different kind of music, or exploring a new activity or hobby, it’s exciting when we can spark an interest in a person, and have it grow into something truly meaningful.”
A frequently asked question regards theft and the durability of instruments. Phyllis Webb of the Magic Fluke Company started what she believes might be the first lending program 18 years ago. In 2001, she brought two Flukes to the library in New Hartford, Connecticut, where she and her husband Dale had recently started their new business, asking if they would take them for a “test drive.”
“They looked at me as if I had three heads,” says Webb, adding, “But because they knew me so well, they agreed to add them to the collection and see if there was any interest. [There was.] This library has had the same Flukes for over 18 years, which may have circulated as many as 200 times each, and they are in perfect condition, whereas popular books such as Harry Potter might need to be replaced after 25 circulations.” Their website has a page dedicated to helping libraries interested in starting music programs, and they offer packages which include laser-engraved permanent IDs on the back of instrument necks.
The Librarians With Ukes group on Facebook reports more concerns with accessories than with instruments. Broken strings, tuners, and zippers on gig bags present a greater problem than theft, and batteries for tuners are a universal issue. Nina Allen Miller from Falmouth, Maine, says, “They [tuners] don’t turn off automatically, and most novices forget to turn them off after tuning. I buy a 20-pack from Amazon and go through them like candy.” One library in Kentucky reports having been forced to sell an instrument to a patron, as she had “fallen in love with it.”
“Anyone who wants to start a program should look for a local ukulele group or someone who knows how to play,” says Robin Shader, director of the Northwest (Florida) Regional Library System. “Partnering with a local group has been very beneficial to our library system. They can provide advice, teach classes, and facilitate programs. Plus, ukulele players are nice people. We should all have a few ukulele players in our lives!”
She also has a powerful ukulele cartel in her court, the Ukulele Orchestra of St. Andrews, headquartered in Panama City, Florida. Their “Gift of Music” donation of $10,000 following catastrophic Hurricane Michael has endowed the library with a lyrical mandate to share the love. The initiative has been so successful that Robin says their main difficulty is keeping instruments in stock. “A lot of ukuleles that were on loan to patrons during Hurricane Michael were lost. Currently, we have 17 ukuleles which have been borrowed 313 times since we implemented uke lending in 2016, and eight people are on the waiting list.”
Shader has created a webinar full of helpful information for others wishing to get a library started on the ukulele path. There’s plenty good advice about instruments and cataloging, and she especially recommends partnership with a local club to ensure success.
In Ventura, California, Alan Ferenz’s love of ukulele found critical mass at the E.P. Foster Library. “The group started as a weekly gathering at a coffee shop. We had about ten folks on a regular basis. After five years and three owners, we went to the shop and it was closed. The library offered to host us as part of a community service program. We are in our fifth year at the library.” They have an email list 300 strong, with an average of 45 attendees meeting two Mondays a month. “The first part of our gathering is a strum and sing-a-long. A list of the selected songs are emailed out the week before a gathering. We then take a break to socialize a bit before resuming. The second half, folks sign up to either play solo or lead a group song. Our ukulele community has really grown and come together over the years. Members are extremely friendly to and supportive of each other and new members.”
“We call ourselves the Duke City Ukes, but we do not limit the instruments to just ukulele for our jams,” says Judy Muldawer, the music maven of Albuquerque, New Mexico, where the Dukes have taken up residency in two branches, hosting 90-minute sessions monthly.
“Each month we present a theme such as waltzes, Western music, swing, or jug band music,” says Muldawer. “The leaders bring sound equipment and a projector to flash chords, lyrics, and other pertinent information onto a screen. The online website for our library jams has a list of the songs for that month’s theme, as well as chords and lyrics, so anyone can download and practice and play them in advance. The level of play started out focusing on beginners, but that has evolved into a higher level. Our goal is to have a large community of ukulele players, at all levels.” They have stocked seven branches with instruments to lend, and are intent on placing them in every library in the city. “Having the lending library ukuleles available to all really helps get people started on the road to success,” Muldawer says.
Barbara Mansfield’s story of how ukuleles invaded New York’s Mid-Hudson Library System perfectly sums up everything good about ukes in libraries.
“Catskill Ukulele Group was started in my living room by my son, Killian Mansfield, when he was 15. He was at home in hospice care for terminal cancer, teaching a small ukulele group. He wanted me and his dad to keep the group going,” Mansfield says. “He said, ‘The world would be less pissed off if everyone played ukulele.’ After he passed away, we tried meeting in parks, restaurants, community centers, people’s homes, music stores, and then finally the library in Phoenicia, New York. I’ll never forget being asked to leave one restaurant on account of ‘the racket you people make.’ Geez. Totally not in the ukulele spirit.”
Mansfield first came to the Phoenicia library after noticing that she could check out a fishing pole there. “I thought, if you can check out a fishing pole, you sure as hootenanny should be able to check out a ukulele at a library!” After feeling like a band of outsider nomads, the library became a true home. She adds, “No other spaces offered the consistency, support, flexibility, and access to resources. Librarians helped bridge the gap in providing meeting reminders, allowed us to make copies, provided coordination with leaders of meetings (to make sure someone would show up to orient new-comers), and ensured a non-judgey space for people to learn ukulele. Plus, people can make tax-deductible donations to the libraries directly to help build collections or fund ukulele events.”
The library program has turned out to be a very mellow and effective way of ensuring Killian’s legacy—his wish that everyone “chill out, meet new people, and play ukulele.”